To the Persecuted Church in America: A Biblical strategy for living in times like these. 

Every time I have tried to sit down and write a coherent reflection this week I have stalled and stammered.  Not only are the events of the past several days complex and overwhelming, the endless grandstanding, commentary, and politicking is absolutely deafening. It is hard to wrap my brain around everything that is going on.  Meanwhile, A pastor threatens to set himself on fire in the wake of gay marriage while across town several churches are actually burning even while we are still morning the deaths of the nine slain brothers and sisters whose kindness almost turned the heart of their murderer.  It is here in the midst of the elation and grief that at least one segment of the Church has managed to find one strange, even baffling narrative to sum it all up, “We are being persecuted!”

After sighing loudly and executing an eye roll that would make Liz Lemon feel like an eye-roll amateur, there is part of me that deeply wants to lash out and rant against this kind of histrionics. But honestly that too would fall of deaf ears or feed that culture war cacophony that tends to make us tune out everyone who doesn’t agree with what we already believe.  So I instead I would like to suggest a less ranty, and slightly more Biblical perspective on the matter:  Yes, we are being persecuted, and this is what you signed up for…

Sometimes the obvious is worth stating again clearly: Jesus was, among other things, a martyr.  The Gospels tell the story of Jesus, who associates with sinners and the “unclean,” confronts both political and religious leaders and is eventually put to death by the empire, and we are his disciples, followers, imitators.  As Daniel Berrigan is known for saying, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

The early Church does indeed follow close behind.  Paul writes no less than 4 of his famous letters from prison and all of the disciples but John were put to death because of their faith.

Our faith is not written on tablets from the halls of the elite, it is carved on wood meant to disgrace a carpenter’s son who captured the imagination of the poor and alienated.

The good news is that the Church’s strategy for faithful living is exactly the same whether it is being held in a place of high esteem or being crucified: Love God with everything we are, and love our neighbors as if they were our own selves.   Nothing has changed.  Our call remains the same.

Love.

If however, we need some more specific instruction on how to endure persecution Paul, in his letter to the church in Philipi offers some of the following advice from prison: Be unified and don’t be afraid  (1:27-28), imitate Christ’s humility (2:1-11), Don’t grumble and argue (2:12-18), Don’t be arrogant or brag (ch 3), and finally.. Rejoice.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:4-1)

There ya have it. The letter is quite short, so I cannot help but recommend it.  In fact, why don’t we all just go there and give it a read right now….

I still wonder if what some people are expressing indignation over really counts as anything like persecution: Are you worried that somebody might call you a bigot for something you believe? One way to insure that no one would ever incorrectly confuse you with a bigot is to live a life of such self evident love that the characterization simply does not stick.

If it is your conviction that what you believe about gay marriage, whatever that may be, makes you better or somehow more deserving of God’s love, especially if that belief requires no sacrifice on your part, that’s a pretty good sign your acting at least like a pharisee, not a disciple, even if what you believe turns out to be right.  In the Christian life it isn’t always just what you believe but how we go about living it.  Paul has additional instruction on this matter…

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1Corinthians 13

Look, the world is definitely changing and I am not saying that it is wrong or not understandable to be scared.  I definitely know as I have aged that I have had to learn to adapt and more specifically, grieve.  Whether is was the safety of my Mother’s lap, or illusion of the “safe” (read demographically white) neighborhood I lived in, or the comfort of the small Christian college I attended, I have learned that many comforts I have enjoyed in life have either changed or simply didn’t exist as I had imagined them.  Some had even come to me at the expense of others. As I come to face these changes and realities, I have to learn to grieve the world I thought I once lived in.  So as now we are entering a time in which being Christian is no longer privileged. I can see how that is painful and needs to be grieved.

I am willing to grieve that with you and I am willing to listen to your fears, and I will apologize for rolling my eyes earlier because whether I like it or not, we are one Body.   It is time for us to let that privileged world go before we risk loving it instead of God.

What we cannot do is go kicking and screaming demanding that the world carve out a place of privilege at other people’s expense simply because we are that certain we are right about what we believe. At the end of the day though they will not recognize us as God’s own because of our piety, purity, indignation, or stick-to-it-tiveness, but by our love.

Praying_after_shooting-croppedThat the church is being persecuted seem evident to me.  In additional to the nine members of the Body of Christ that were shot to death during their bible study, it appears that four separate predominantly black churches were intentionally set on fire just this week.  The Body of Christ in America is indeed being persecuted, but not for our beliefs.  These bullets and fire are not mere imagined slippery slopes of a life made uncomfortable by a shift in popular ideology.  This is life and death and this is our Body.

If we believe as Jesus taught us that we are made one in him, if we hear in Paul’s teachings the clear call to unity, then let’s stop complaining about what the world owes us, hunker down and begin to take genuine care of each other.  If the Body of Christ is somewhere being persecuted, and in these cases I believe it is, then let us return to our call and our mission and do the hard work of love.

And the peace of God, which goes way beyond all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

That is something I can learn to live with… or even die for.  May God make it so.

Amen.

body-of-christ

 

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